The Doom of the Incorrigible Sinner
Adapted from a Sermon by Samuel Davies
He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck, will suddenly be broken beyond healing. Proverbs 29:1
A Proverb is a miniature model of wisdom: it is an applicable striking observation, expressed in a few words, that it may be the more easily remembered; and often in vivid language, so that it may be the more entertaining. A collection of proverbs has no connection, but consists of short independent sentences, each of which makes full sense in itself; and therefore, in explaining them, there is no need of explaining the context; but we may select any particular sentence, and consider it separately by itself.
Such a collection of wise sayings is that book of the Sacred Scriptures, which we call the Proverbs of Solomon. Wise men in all ages, and in all languages, have often cast their observations into the concise significant forms of proverbs; but the sages of antiquity, especially, were fond of this method of instruction, and left legacies of wisdom to posterity, wrapt up in a proverbial dress; many of which, particularly of the Greek philosophers, survive to this day.
Among the many significant and weighty sayings of this wisest of men, the solemn cautionary proverb in our text this morning deserves peculiar attention: He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck, will suddenly be broken beyond healing.
The thought of eternity, and final judgment, and how we cannot be too careful about how we stand in these matters, have encouraged me to follow Mr Davis’s lead and make it the subject of our meditations for this morning. May God grant that it may be profitable to our souls.
This proverb may be applied to all the affairs of life. In whatever course a man blunders on, headstrong, and regardless of advice and admonition, whether in domestic affairs, in trade, in politics, in war, or whatever it be he pursues by wrong measures with incorrigible obstinacy, it will ruin him at last, as far as the matter is capable of working his ruin.
To follow the conduct of our own folly, and refuse the advantage we might receive from the wisdom of others, reveals an un-creaturely pride and self-sufficiency; and the end of such a pursuit, whatever be the object, will always end in disappointment and confusion. In this extent perhaps; this adage was intended by Solomon, who was a good economist and politician, and well skilled in the affairs of common life, as well as those of religion.
But he undoubtedly intended it should be principally referred to matters of religion. It is especially in these matters it holds true in the highest sense; that he who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck, will suddenly be broken beyond healing.
He who is often reproved—This is undoubtedly our character. We in this small assembly have been often reproved, and that in various forms, and by various voices from the past. We have been reproved from heaven and earth, by God, men, and our own consciences; and, I might add, by the inanimate creation, and even by infernal spirits.
Men of various classes have reproved us. And it is the happiness of many to live in families were they are often reproved and admonished with the tender words of a father or mother, who are deeply concerned that their children should be their companions in the heavenly road, and be effectually warned from the alluring paths of this world, the paths of sin and ruin.
Or, for those whose parents have been cruelly deficient in this noblest undertaking of love, God often raises up unexpected reprovers for them, in a brother, a sister. And who can resist the force of an admonition from such an unexpected source?
And there are some who find an affectionate 'faithful helper, in marriage; a husband or a wife, that has reproved the vices or the negligence and carelessness of the other party; and, by a striking example at the least, if not in more explicit language, given the alarm to greater diligence and concern in the affairs of religion and eternity.
Such are powerful, though modest and private assistants to the preaching of the gospel, and would there be more help from this quarter! More help to save a husband! to save a wife! to save a child! To save a close relation! to save those dear creatures from everlasting misery! How great, how important the kindness! And by so much the more pleasing, by how much the dearer the persons are to whom it is shown!
And have you not sometimes received an accidental un-designed reproof even from the wicked? Just as Caiaphas once prophesied of the death of Christ, and its blessed consequences. Not to dwell on the observation, that their eagerness and untiring diligence in pursuing their pleasures, whether they place them in honour, riches, or sensuality, and in serving their guilty lusts, in spite of all restraints, may serve as a sharp reproof of your lukewarmness and carelessness in the pursuit of the pleasures of religion and immortality, so much more noble and interesting.
But rather, passing over this, have they not at times rebuked you in more direct terms? Have they not called you out and reproached you in this way, "I thought you, that pretend to so much sanctity, would not dare to attempt such a thing." Or, "See the saint, the church goer drunk; see his deception and craftiness, see him as vain and thoughtlessly merry as his neighbours; certainly, we that make no such profession, may take such liberties, since such saints do so"—Such reflections as these however sarcastic and malignant, blind and bitter, have all the keenness of the sharpest reproof. May none of us ever give any occasion for them! But if offences should come to occasion them, may our hearts always feel their force; in this way may we derive good out of evil; be warned from sin by sinners; and restrained in our career to ruin by those who are themselves rushing into it!
But though all around you, both saints and sinners, should refuse to be your monitor, how many solemn warnings and reproofs have you had from the pulpit! You have heard many ministers of Christ, who have been your solemn admonishers in the dread name of their Master.
In this way, have you been reproved by men from all quarters. And certainly so loud, so general, so repeated an admonition, even from men, must have great weight. But who can resist an admonition from heaven? Surely, if Jehovah, the great Sovereign of the universe, condescends to be your reprover, you must immediately take the reproof, and resolve to change course. Well, this office he has condescended to fulfill. He has himself become your monitor; and that in various ways, both mediately and immediately: mediately, by his word and providence; and immediately, by his blessed Spirit, whose office it is to “convict the world concerning sin.” (John 16:8)
The Word of God has reproved you; has honestly laid before you the destructive consequences of sin, and denounced the divine displeasure against you on its account. All its commands, prohibitions, and dissuasives of various forms, are so many friendly warnings and admonitions to you. He conveys his reproofs through your eyes and your ears, when you read and hear his Word; and sometimes, no doubt, he has made the hardest heart among you feel his rebukes, and tremble under them. In short, you must own yourselves, that if any of you go on obstinately in sin and perish, it will not be because the Word of God did not act a faithful part towards you, but because you presumptuously disregard its most solemn and affectionate warnings.
Again; God has often reproved you by his providence. His providence has kindly chastised you with personal and relative afflictions; with sickness and pains, bereavements, losses, and disappointments. Providence has admonished you with the striking voice of sick beds, dying groans, pale corpses, and gaping graves, in your families, or neighbourhoods, or perhaps in both.
Are there not some, even in these last few years, who have been brought down to the gates of the grave, to enter into a serious consideration of death and eternity, which they were so averse to, in the giddy unthinking hours of health and hurry of business?
How many of our friends and neighbours have sickened and died, as a warning to survivors! They are gone to remind us, that our turn will also soon come. Sickness and death, expiring agonies, pale corpses, these are all very solemn monitors; and that heart is hard indeed, that does not feel their reproof.
And whenever acts of Providence have concurred with the Word, and feelingly reproved us with its fatherly rod we should always remember, that the hand of Providence is the hand of God, whatever instruments he is pleased to use.
But has he not often put aside all instruments, and reproved you more directly by his Spirit? Has his Spirit not been frequently and for a long time striving with you; reproving you of sin; alarming you with hints of your danger: exciting in you good resolutions, and serious thoughts of reformation? Has the blessed Spirit not at times brought home the Word to your hearts with unusual power, and roused your conscience to fall upon you with terrible, though friendly violence? Which leads to this observation, that
You have been your own monitors; I mean your consciences have often admonished and warned you; have whispered in your ears, that "this way of living in vice and irreligion will not do: this carelessness and indifference in the concerns of your souls, this senseless neglect of God and eternal things, will not end well."
Conscience has often honestly pronounced your doom: "You are a guilty wicked creature, under the displeasure of God. You are destitute of true vital religion, and have no title to the divine favour. If you die in this condition, you will be undone forever." In this way, conscience has warned you; and you have no doubt sometimes sweated and agonized under its chastisements. Though you have sadly worked hard to bribe it, or suppress it by violence; yet it has still held out at least a faint testimony for its Master, and against you. And so it is that you always carry a reprover in your own being wherever you go: and though every mouth around you should be silent, this will speak, if you do but pay attention, and give it a fair hearing.
It can be added, that even the inanimate creation is your monitor; and in silent, but forcible language, argues against your conduct. Can you hear the musicians of the air in every bush warbling out their grateful anthems to their Maker, without being convicted of your guilty silence in his praise? Can you see the sun invariably rolling in the path first marked out for it by its Maker and Lord, without feeling yourselves reproved for your numberless deviations from the path of duty ? Do not the regulated stated revolutions of the seasons, and of night and day, sensibly reprove your inconsistency in your hours of devotion? In short, does not all nature cry out against you? Is not everything you see obedient to its Maker's laws, but man? Man, who should claim the precedence in obedience, as he is appointed lord of the lower creation?
To go further, even infernal spirits, those everlasting enemies of man and goodness, may serve as your reprovers. Can you think of their unwearied roaming over the earth, in quest of souls as their prey, and their diligence and toil to do mischief, without blaming your own negligence to save your own souls, and do good? And could you but hear the lost souls of your own race, who are now shut up in the infernal prison, bursting out into despairing cries, and bitterly accusing themselves for their presumption and security, their lazy delays, wasting of precious time, and neglect of the means of grace, while on earth; how loud and striking a warning would this be to you, who are now walking in their steps!
And so you have a brief list of your many monitors. And who can stand the united reproofs of such a multitude? Who dare set himself against the admonition of earth, heaven, and hell; of God and all his creatures? Must you not all yield to the warning?
Solomon supposes, in our text, "that a man may be often reproved, and yet stiffen his neck;" that is, obstinately refuse submission and reformation. A stiff neck is a picture often used in Scripture, of an unyielding incorrigible spirit, resolute in disobedience, in spite of all restraints; in spite of advice, warnings and reproofs. And to harden the neck, is to confirm one's self in disobedience, in opposition to admonition; or to refuse to reform, and strengthen one's self in the refusal, in spite of all the means of reformation.
It is to cherish obstinacy, to despise reproof, and resolve to follow a headstrong, impetuous self-will at all costs. The metaphor is taken from an unmanageable sullen ox, that will not bend his neck to the yoke but stiffens it, so as to try and throw it off; and hardens it, that it may not feel it: and no amount of encouragement breaks his obstinate spirit, nor reduce him to willing subjection. And so, nothing but a sullen and senseless beast can represent the senseless unreasonable conduct of that man who hardens himself in sin, against the strongest warnings and reproofs from God and his creatures.
And is not this the character of some of you? I have no desire and am very unwilling to presume such bad things of any of you; but I must at least put it to your own consciences to determine, whether it be so or not? This you may know by this single question: have reformed of those things for which you have been reproved? or do you still obstinately persist in them, in opposition to the most striking admonitions?
A profane and profligate among us would have often been reproved for his vices; his drunkenness, swearing, lying, contempt of sacred things, and other immoralities: but the question is does he still obstinately persist in doing them?
We have often been warned about the neglect of the worship of God in our families, and the souls of our dependents; And yet, do we have prayerless families, prayerless mornings and evenings still?
Have we not been solemnly warned of the danger of neglecting, or carelessly attending upon, the means of grace? And yet are we negligent and careless still?
Have we not been earnestly admonished for our presumption and security, our entertaining high hopes of future happiness, and that we are genuine Christians, on shaky grounds, without honest trial and repeated self-examination?
And do any of us persist in this senseless destructive conduct? Sadly! How easy it is to be ignorant of our own true character! How unwillingly we are dragged to the bar of conscience, there to be tried, and hear our true sentence! How ready we all are to flatter ourselves with pleasing expectations, though in reality contrary to the declarations of eternal truth! And how secure and thoughtless we can be about the great concerns of religion and eternity! How lukewarm and inactive in the duties we owe to God and man, and in our endeavours to work out our salvation!
But have we not been solemnly warned of the destructive consequences of this course? How often have we been honestly told, that this is not the narrow and rugged road of virtue and religion that leads to heaven! How often have we been warned of the danger of mistaking external formalities for vital religion, and a mere profession of Christianity for the heart-experience and constant practice of it!
And yet are there some of us who indulge in this destructive mistake still? Have we not been often reproved for contenting ourselves with a dead, fruitless faith, an empty assumption, or historical belief; with transient unwilling fits of forced repentance, that produce no reformation; and the counterfeit appearances of other graces and virtues?
Have we not often been reproved for contenting ourselves with these; instead of that lively, effectual, heart-affecting faith, that hearty, honest, voluntary repentance, and thorough reformation, and those other active, practical graces and virtues, which are required in the gospel, as essential characteristics of a true Christian, and absolutely necessary pre-requisites to everlasting life?
And yet are there some who wilfully indulge the delusion still, and are unwilling to admit conviction, and discover the truth! How often and how solemnly have you been reproved for your excessive eagerness and avarice in the pursuit of this vain world, and your senseless neglect to lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, and to be rich towards God! And yet, is this enchanting world your favourite, and the idol of your hearts still?
And are any still careless what will become of them through an everlasting duration, in an infinitely more important world? That one warning from Christ himself might have been an irresistible rebuke to you, “what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matt 16:26) But are there still any who stand out against this, and a thousand other strong warning?
Have you not often had the dreadful guilt and danger of making light of Christ and his precious gospel, of delaying your conversion to some uncertain future, and of presuming upon the mercy and patience of God, exposed to you in a striking light? And yet you have still persisted in the practice, in spite of reproof and conviction. Many more examples could be given but these must serve as examples; and one more general rule can be added for your further conviction, that whatever sin you indulge yourselves in, whatever duty you omit, whatever grace or virtue you live destitute of, in opposition to the conviction of your own minds within, and of the reproofs and admonitions of God and man from without, you are then guilty of hardening your neck.
And if this be the case, how many of us are involved in this guilt? Look into your own heart, and does not conscience whisper, or perhaps clamour, "Guilty! guilty!"
It is strange, it is unaccountable, it is horrible, that there should even one such case on earth, on whom the repeated reproofs and warnings of God and his fellow-creatures have been thrown away; and who dares singly to stand it out against the whole universe! But, sadly! Among our relations and friends and perhaps among us, are there not many such cases?
To reprove them again is a very unpromising and almost desperate attempt; for they have been so desensitize to it, that they are hardened against it, and rebel against it. Yet duty and compassion constrain to make the attempt once more: for we cannot yet give them up as altogether desperate, nor resign them with willing hands as a prey to destruction.
There is no other way to bring them out of danger but to make them aware of it. And this is the goal in illustrating the remaining part of the text, which informs us of the plain truth, that he who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck, will suddenly be broken beyond healing, or without a cure.
The stiff neck, that will not bend to the yoke of obedience, must be broken; and its own stiffness makes it the more easily broken: for it is not easy to break what is yielding and pliable; but even the resistance of the stiff neck brings about its own ruin. It may harden itself into insensibility under reproof: but it cannot harden itself into insensibility under divine judgments. It may refuse the easy and gentle yoke of the divine law; but divine justice will impose its iron yoke on it by force, and constrain it to bow until it is broken. This is the doom of the obstinate incorrigible sinner: in this way he will be destroyed and broken to pieces.
But this is not all: he will suddenly be destroyed, suddenly broken. Sudden ruin is worse, because it strikes a man into a consternation, overtakes him unawares, surprises him at a disadvantage, when he is without any means of escape; and also tears all his pleasing hopes away from him; and by how much the higher the hopes from where he falls, by so much the deeper he is engulfed in misery.
Sudden ruin is the certain and natural consequence of a man's incorrigible obstinacy, in spite of admonition. He must be ruined, because he will not be warned, nor abandon the path that leads to destruction. He will even take his own way at all costs, and no man can help him; and therefore he must be destroyed.
He must also be suddenly destroyed, because he would hope for safety in spite of warning; suddenly broken, because he would not foresee the blow. Until he feels the stroke, he would not believe it was coming; and therefore his destruction is sudden, surprising, and confounding. This is the natural end of foolhardiness and obstinacy, in spite of all restraints and admonitions: and there is no help for it: such obstinacy and presumption is an incurable disease, that excludes all remedy. This is implied in the last part of the text: He will suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy; or, as it might be more literally translated, "and there is no cure, or medicine, or healing." There can be no preventive medicine to such a self-willed head-strong creature; because he will not apply it; and pushes off every friendly hand that would apply it. And there can be no healing or restoring medicine applied; for the breach, when made, is desperate, and allows for no cure. The stiff neck is broken in pieces so that it can never be healed. Then the patient, so obstinate before, would most willingly apply a remedy: but now it is too late.
Reproofs and admonitions from God and men, and our own consciences, are the great means to recover sinners: and while these have no effect, no other can possibly have any effect. How can he be reclaimed from sin, who will sin in opposition to all restraints! In opposition to the checks of conscience, and the strivings of the Holy Spirit within, and the united dissuasives and rebukes of Providence, of the Word of God, and of all his friends!
Neither God nor all his creatures can reform and save such a doomed person, while he continues steadfast against all the means of reformation and salvation. It is unavoidable, that he should suddenly be destroyed; and there is no help for it: he must be given up as an incurable. The whole universe may look on, and pity him; but sadly! they cannot help him: He has the instrument of self-murder in his own hand; and he will not part with it, but uses it against his own life, without control: and no one can take it out of his hand; that is, none can give his free will a new direction, but that God whom he is daily offending, and who is therefore not obligated to extend such a favour upon him.
This is the unavoidable doom of the man who being often reproved hardens his neck. And is this the character of some of you? You only can judge yourselves. And if so, have you not reason to fear and have foreboding of this tremendous doom? Let me reason a little with you to go further in convincing you.
The danger of such will appear from these two considerations, that
1- if you always continue in your present condition, steadfast against all admonition, you must be destroyed without remedy. And that
2- there is dreadful reason to fear, you always will continue in your present condition.
1- That if you live and die in your present condition you must be destroyed without remedy, is lamentably evident from what has been said.
It is the declaration of the wisest of men, inspired from heaven; He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck, will suddenly be broken beyond healing. It is one of the proverbs of this wisest of men.
Now a proverb is a wise remark, made after long observation, and frequently lived out in the world. Therefore, when we consider Solomon here not only as speaking an inspired truth, but pronouncing a proverb, it is as if he had said, "This I have collected from long experience, and careful observation of mankind, and the course of Providence; this is daily exemplified in the world without exception; this all ages may take as a sure and important truth, and I record it among my immortal proverbs for their warning, that he who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck, will suddenly be broken beyond healing.
A proverb being a familiar observation upon the common occurrences of the world, it follows further, that the accomplishment of it is a common thing, that every man can notice, to his full conviction; and therefore Solomon, by inserting this remark among his Proverbs, implies that the sudden and remediless destruction of an incorrigible sinner, is a familiar event that falls under every man's notice, and which no man can dispute, without disputing the common sense and experience of mankind.
And so, certain, irreprovable sinners! Common is your doom, if you continue in your present condition: it is certain, it is common, even to a proverb. And if you still go on in your present course, you will at last become yourself a proverb to all the world. Your destruction, as we have seen, is unavoidable and remediless, according to the nature of things: it is the natural, spontaneous, and inseparable result and effect of incorrigible obstinacy.
You resolutely set your free wills, which are not under the control of any creature but yourselves, to your own ruin: and what then remains, but that you must be ruined! To ruin you must go, though against the prayers and tears of the saints, and checked by their friendly admonitions, enforced with those of God himself.
They cannot help you against your wills. What can keep you from engulfing yourselves in destruction, when you break through all restraints from God and the whole creation? You reject the only cure: and must you not die as incurables? If the spirit of God strives with you in vain; if conscience checks and admonishes you in vain; if Providence uses its discipline in vain; if sickness, and death, and graves preach in vain; if Bibles and good books are put into your hands in vain; if ministers, and friends, and neighbours, and the dearest relatives, advise, and persuade, and warn, and reprove in vain; if heaven, and earth, and hell, if God and all his creatures admonish in vain; what hopes can you have for your salvation! What better means can you desire? What other means can you expect? Can you hope to be reformed and prepared for heaven, when these means, the best, the only means that ever were used with sinful creatures, and which have proved effective in the most discouraging cases, have no effect upon you! You must judge for yourselves, whether your destruction is unavoidable in your present condition.
2- And, in the second place, that you will always continue in your present condition is, tragically, only too probable.
You have continued in it all your life past: and is not this a dreadful presumption that you will continue in it all your life to come? Can you expect better means than you have had! Or are your hearts become more soft and pliable now, when hardened by a continued persistence in incorrigible impenitence, that you should hope the same means will have greater effect upon them in time to come than in the past?
Are you as sure of twenty or thirty years before you, as that you have enjoyed twenty or thirty years in time past? Is God the less provoked, by how much the longer you have offended him, so that you have more encouragement to expect the assistance of his grace in the future than in the past?
Are you now any more out of danger of being judiciously hardened and given up of God, than ten years ago? And are you the more sure of his favour, by how much the more you deserve his wrath?
Are the habits of sin grown weaker through obstinate and long indulgence in it? Does the work of your salvation grow easier by delays, and by your having fewer days for work? Does conscience gain strength with you, by your repeated offences; or the spirit of God work the more powerfully, the more you resist and grieve him?
Does your being accustomed to the gospel, give it greater force upon you? If the happy change of your present condition be probable, the probability must depend, from a purely human perspective, upon such absurdities as these.
But can these be the foundation of a favourable probability? No; but of the greatest probability of a unfavourable one. The truth of the case is, your condition is growing more and more discouraging every day; and you are approaching fast towards a fixed un-changeable state of incorrigible obstinacy in wickedness.
Ten years ago, it was much more likely, from a human perspective, that you would have been converted by now, than it is, that you will be converted ten years from now. In short, the only ground of hope concerning you; is, not at all from the appearance of things to human eyes, but merely from the free and sovereign grace of God.
If any of you are in this state, and only you can know your own true state, I may say of your salvation, what Christ said of the salvation of the rich, “with man this is impossible.” that is, according to the ordinary way of judging among men, who can judge only by appearances, and who count those things likely or unlikely, possible or impossible, which seem to be so in their own nature: according to this rule of judging, there is no reason at all to hope for it. It is quite desperate.
“But with God all things are possible.”(Matt 19:26) He can and sometimes does, act contrary to appearances and the natural tendency of things; and astonishes his creatures with unexpected and surprising wonders. And so, established, obstinate sinners! he may yet deal with some of you. Omnipotence may yet take you in hand, disarm all your resistance, and cause you to feel those admonitions you have made light of.
This perhaps, God may do. But consider! It is an anxious dreadful uncertainty; for you must know, though he sometimes singles out a hardened sinner here and there, to make him the illustrious trophy of the power of his grace, yet this is not his usual way. He does not commonly work upon such unsuitable subjects. He generally works on the young and pliable, upon those that have not been long accustomed to the gospel, nor hardened in sin. Therefore, even this, which is your only ground of hope, can give you only a trembling anxious hope. Notwithstanding this, you have reason to fear that you will die as you have lived until now, hardy, resolute, incorrigible sinners. And if so, you know your dreadful end; you will suddenly be destroyed, your stiff neck will be unexpectedly broken; and there will be no help, no remedy.
And if you are indeed in so much danger, will you not now lay it to heart, and endeavour to escape while you can? Tragically! Will this admonition also, this admonition for your disregarding all past admonitions, be lost upon you like the rest ? Will you not finally take the warning, before it is too late?
Perhaps this gospel you have heard so often, may not long sound in your ears. May God grant this day, that those who have been reproved in vain for so many years, pay attention at last, and submit and yield. Then, and not until then, you will be safe from the vengeance denounced in this alarming proverb, He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck, will suddenly be broken beyond healing.